The Who

If fear is the mind-killer, then complacency is the killer of self. I think about self a lot, maybe more than a supposedly decent person should. But I think it’s important not only to make the effort to get to know yourself, but to do it in a way that’s separate from the way other people see you. Even though we can never know what other people really feel about us, we internalize things, usually judgments but sometimes a mistaken sense of invincibility, that turn into how we think we see ourselves.

And a lot of what we think we are becomes an exercise in boundaries, in things we’re not. The problem with boundaries comes when they belong to other people. Sometimes others think the boundary should be further into you than you’d like, and other times their boundaries make you into a different shape than what you were to begin with. People will always judge you, for things you can’t help just as much as for things you designed yourself. Better not to worry about it, but you still have to function in society. So boundaries will be defined and redefined, and just having an identity becomes transgressive.

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I’ve been having a rough time with my work this spring. There have been some deadlines and some expectations and there hasn’t been some data. There have been snarky emails and panicked skype calls and venting and doubting and rethinking and lots of deep breathing (and a good deal of ice cream and knitting).

I find that I typically hover on such a fine point of confidence level at the best of times that when the going actually does get tough, I fall into a giant pit of self-deprecation that makes it very difficult to get any work done at all (not that it would be any good anyway, the little voice tells me).

I rail a lot about how what I do is work, and it should be respected and paid fairly and called a “real job.” I still believe that. I still believe everyone should have access to education that doesn’t put them hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, that education at all levels should be respected and valued, that research work should be paid like any other field of work rather than having grants doled out like bribes to publish a flashy article in a sexy journal.

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But on a broader level, I’ve been struggling lately with the idea of being an “adult.” Everywhere I look, there are snarky, self-important Boomers sharing articles about how Millennials are all just overgrown children, living with parents until well into their late 20’s, not investing, not saving for retirement, ruining the housing market by not buying houses, just sitting around sipping their overpriced hipster coffees and spending too much time complaining about how everything in today’s society is unfair.

Depending on where you look, you’re not a real adult until you’ve fixed your own plumbing, or bought a $2,000 sofa, paid for a new car in cash, put a downpayment on a split-level ranch in the suburbs, got a big promotion, had a baby. Nevermind if you’d rather live in the city or don’t want children, and bless your heart if your sofa is secondhand.

Well, most of those things seem situational. But everyone needs a job, right? Ignoring for just a moment the awful stigmatization of assistance programs and their need for reform, as well as the sad state of a minimum wage that hasn’t risen in accordance with inflation and everything else in so many years, people really like to complain about Millennial work culture. Freelancing, gigs, start-ups, perks, work-life culture, working from home or teleconferencing—these are all symptoms of the death of traditional work culture, apparently. Was traditional work culture ever that great though? Having to struggle for safe conditions and an 8 hour workday, and even now, study after study shows that work based on productivity goals is more effective than butts-in-the-seat work policies. I’m mainly talking about white-collar/office-related work here, but I think it also applies to small business owners, artisans like farmers, artists and designers, and those in the food industries. If you work hard when you need to work hard in order to be efficient, that should be enough. There’s no reason to keep open an empty cafe on a holiday, on the off chance that one or two customers might come in. It’s so much more effective and healthy to take that time, and focus on optimizing work when you need to. As they say, work smarter.

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I think a main part of this problem is a (thankfully fading) cult of exhaustion. I bought into this too, but it’s ridiculous when you think about it. Why are you bragging that you’re more tired than someone else, that you’re unhappy? Who does that help? Did you really get more work done, or better work done, or did you push yourself too hard when the tasks could have been done more efficiently later? How special do you think you are that you have to be reachable at all hours? Do you really believe that if you don’t check your email all weekend, the company will collapse? Or rather, will people respect you more for setting boundaries?

Hint from a psychologist: it’s the second one! 

The people in my field who I respect the most are the people who set these boundaries, who say, I’m not coming in today because I’m spending time with my family. Who remind me to take time for myself, who check in and make sure that I have people to turn to–which is especially important as a foreigner. These people make it clear through their actions that they value life–their own, their families, and mine. You don’t have to sacrifice everything or try to “have it all,” we all just make decisions based on our own set of priorities. If you aren’t happy with the decisions you made, you can change your mind. And that doesn’t give you the right to play the martyr to people who are trying to make the right decisions for themselves, or the right to make them feel bad about those decisions.

Humans are not machines, and we don’t work very well like machines. We need variety, we need interest and excitement and exercise and stimulation. We need to think and to run and to make things and to talk to each other. And I think it’s important to figure out what the substrate of your work is within yourself, and to nurture it. Athletes’ work depends on the health of their physical bodies, so they train them and care for them and rest them. Researchers’ work depends on our minds, and it’s a sign of the unhealthy environment that so many of us work in that mental health crises among academics are common. Part of caring for our minds also depends on our bodies–eating the correct nutrition for cognitive function, getting exercise and fresh air, getting social activity. And the other part is related to how you see yourself, how your own mind deals with stress and training and difficulty.

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This is all related to the real adult dilemma. Because on top of the specific work-related stresses and issues of academia, we’re often seen as extra childish because of our work culture that closely mirrors other creative work, like music and design. We barely make enough money to live on until three degrees in, or later, so we can’t buy houses and cars and make investment portfolios, and we have student loans to pay off anyway. We live in small apartments with secondhand things, we don’t all work business hours or at desks, and to some people, that’s not what being an adult is.

There are a lot of things I’ve internalized about this. I know I should have more savings. Maybe I should be more active in the community–maybe I should volunteer and go to more museums, maybe I should be even stricter about my ethical standards for sustainable and fairly compensated products. I shouldn’t ever leave dishes in the sink overnight, I should sweep the floor more often. I should have a stricter schedule and a more regular exercise regime and be a morning person and work “normal” hours.

And these are all things I’m working on, but not having them perfect doesn’t mean I’m less of an adult. I may not own a house or a car, but I can move to a foreign country alone. I may not work a 9-5 job, but I get things done in the way that’s the most efficient for me. And I value the other things in my life, because even though I do love what I do, I do it partly because we all have to work. I’m lucky to have found a career path that I actually enjoy and that affords me the freedom to (for the most part) make my own schedule. And that doesn’t make me less of an adult.

I rant a lot about how academia should be more valued, should be paid accordingly, but there’s a dissonance there, because I still struggle with the guilt that comes from not working in a “normal” way. If I call it work, then it should look like an office job, right? No! I don’t believe that, but I still guilt myself about it. I still rail against being called a student even though I guess technically, that’s what I am, and that’s mostly how I work. If I call myself a student, it feels demeaning but it takes away the guilt, the dissonance of not working like an “adult.” These graduate degrees are a strange combination of student and “regular” work in a world that is redefining regular everywhere we turn.

And then I read about start-up culture and tech interns and social media companies and all the perks of working in those fields that have all the money (communal snack basket? exercise classes? spa retreats?) and I see people complaining about the lack of respect they get (especially women) and the lack of direction and fulfillment in their lives and I get such a tug-of-war between feeling exploited and feeling privileged and too aware of my own privilege in a way that makes me both guilty and angry at myself, and even angrier at the people who have it better than I do and don’t know it.

And I doubt myself and my decisions. I have several friends who have gone back to get Master’s degrees and PhDs after a few years in industry, and I find myself envying their financial security, their ability to know that this is improving themselves and to take full advantage of it without having to rush through and just try to get a job in the field before luck or karma or tenacity wears off, knowing that they will be praised for adding this mark to their checklist after successfully proving their ability to live as an adult in the “real” world. Whereas I am asked about when I will finally “finish school” and get a “real job.”

Sometimes I wish I would have done the same. I don’t know if it was possible, or if making that decision would have prevented me being where I am now. I’ve seen a few postdoc positions advertised lately that insist that they won’t accept applicants with older degrees. We know that’s a problem in academia–they get suspicious if you have too much time between positions, although they’re starting to (at least) claim that if it’s for family reasons or other work, it’s acceptable. But it still seem the norm that once you get into the PhD realm, you’re stuck on the conveyor belt and the consequences of falling off are both terrifying and unknown. But I have colleagues who are older and who have done other things in the meantime, and I don’t believe that I’ll be more successful just because I’ve tried to do it all in one go.

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And after thinking about all this for a while and feeling down on myself about not living up to other people’s standards for adulthood, I realized something. Why do I want to be an “adult” anyway? I seem to only care about the word when it’s used to disparage people of my age and lifestyle, so why bother with it at all? It’s just another label that people can use against you. I don’t have to identify as someone else’s definition of an adult. And that doesn’t make me a child, either. It just makes me a person. A person just trying to live my life, like anyone else.

And I struggle with knowing which things are worth worrying about, which things show bad judgment or karma and which things are quirks. Sometimes the littlest things mean everything, despite all the big things, and sometimes they don’t mean as much as we think they do in the end.

As for the work stresses of the moment, I’m trying to remember to ask myself whether it’ll matter in a year. I look back on the things I thought were the end of the world that turned out to be valuable lessons or really minor inconveniences, and try to keep some perspective. And I’m trying not to pressure myself into an arbitrary timeline. I still, more than ever actually, believe in my topic. I’m reading new articles that are providing evidence for my hunches, moving the field in the direction I’ve wanted to go for years. My advisers are still supporting my ideas, and stressing quality over speed. Things will work out, and at the moment, my biggest professional goal should be to produce a stunning PhD, and that seems possible because the ideas are there. It’s become its own animal, and instead of sorting through pieces like a puzzle, trying to figure out what it is and what it’s made of, now it’s a real thing. I may not know what it’ll look like at the end, but for now I can feed it and keep it alive. Everything else is a means to this end, just the logistics, and not the end of anything. Just a little devil in the details.

But, like my house tonttu, and stress, sometimes the little devils can be tamed with deep breaths, a good coffee with a friend, and a bit of chocolate. And a reminder not to take myself so seriously.

 

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One Comment

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  1. Oh, that incessant battle between Boomers and Millennials. It will never stop.

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